Successful people frequently have unique traits—we all know that. But is there some other secret to success that these people are surreptitiously hoarding?

Sort of, but it’s not really much of a secret. In fact, people have been sharing this advice for generations. As the Stanford Business Review points out in a recent article, research shows that the old saying, “Ask and you shall receive,” is actually true whether you need a colleague to cover for you while you run off to a quick doctor’s appointment or something more involved, like a key introduction or assistance with a major work project.

What the research finds is that, basically, others—even complete strangers—are much more likely to help than you might predict. The societal pressure to say yes is surprisingly strong. This adds up. You’ll find that people who have found success will rarely claim that they did it all on their own. If anything, they may have just caught on to this little trick earlier in their careers.

And, more importantly, they picked up how to do it correctly. See, it’s not enough to look like you could use some help or to hint, even obviously, that you’d like a hand with something. What does work is asking directly.

To get over how awkward it can be to seek help, here’s how to do it tactfully.


1. The Setup

Avoid starting immediately with what you’re seeking. First, prepare your colleague or peer for your request by letting them know it’s coming. Something as simple as, “There’s something I’d love your help with,” or “I have a favor to ask you” will work well. You’ll be mentally preparing them, and you won’t come off as brusque or demanding.


2. The Ask

When you do get to “the ask,” make sure you know very clearly what kind of help you’re looking for and why. This means thinking though your request before you ask. Making your request specific (and, of course, reasonable) will make it easier for your colleague to understand what he or she is signing up for. Plus, as another study shows, giving a reason (even if it’s not a great one) makes it more likely for people to agree to your request.

3. The Out

Finally, finish up by giving an out to your request. Understanding that it’s actually a lot harder to say no than we realize, be a good person and offer an out in the event that your co-worker or friend really can’t help you. Something like, “I completely understand if you’re too busy, just wanted to ask,” or “If you don’t feel comfortable connecting me to your mentor, that’s absolutely understandable.”



Asking for help will without fail help you in your quest for success, but if you’re worried that this practice might make you look incompetent or wrack up a bunch of IOUs, then take this final bit of advice: Help others before you need their help. You’ll be all set.


Photo of people working courtesy of Shutterstock.